Psychopaths' disregard for others is not automatic

March 13, 2018 by Bill Hathaway, Yale University
Credit: stock.adobe.com

Psychopaths exhibit callous disregard for the welfare of others, suggesting an inability to understand the perspective of people around them. Yet they can also be extremely charming and manipulative, seemingly indicating an awareness of the thoughts of others. This paradox has perplexed researchers, clinicians, legal authorities, and the lay public.

A new Yale study shows that psychopaths lack the ability to automatically assess thoughts of those around them, a process that underlies the formation of human social bonds. However, if asked to deliberately assess thoughts of those around them, they can process the thoughts of others.

"Psychopaths can be extremely manipulative, which requires understanding of another's thoughts," said Yale's Arielle Baskin-Sommers, professor of psychology and senior author of the study published March 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "But if they understand the of others, why do they inflict so much harm?"

Baskin-Sommers received permission from the Connecticut Department of Correction to study inmates in maximum security prisons. Along with colleagues Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos, she had inmates play a computer game in which they were asked to perform a task from either their own perspective or that of an avatar on the screen dressed as an inmate.

Most people find it difficult to ignore the perspective of the avatar entirely, even if they are charged with playing the computer game from their own viewpoint, Baskin-Sommers said. "It is like speaking in front of a class: Your attention should not be on the audience, but it is impossible to ignore social cues such as eye rolling or yawning," she said. "That reflects our automatic process of considering the thoughts of those around us."

Psychopaths do not automatically pick up such cues, the study suggests. Also, inmates who scored high on and showed the greatest degree of this deficit were more likely to have been convicted of assault crimes. However, when asked specifically to perform a task from the perspective of the avatar, even psychopaths showed they can accurately understand the perspective of others.

Psychopaths seem to have the ability consider the thoughts of others—only if there is a specific goal they want to accomplish, Baskin-Sommers explained.

Researchers say the hope is to understand the complexity of the psychopathic mind and consider ways to teach psychopathic individuals to develop strategies to consider those around them.

Explore further: Targeted computer games can change behavior of psychopaths

More information: Lindsey A. Drayton et al. Psychopaths fail to automatically take the perspective of others, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1721903115

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8 comments

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adam_russell_9615
not rated yet Mar 13, 2018
Psychopaths consciously ignore the problems of others except when they can gain from it.
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2018
There are many examples of where merely intellectualising is not the same as actual understanding or recognising at a conscious level.

Example: patients with frontal lobe damage can often describe correct moral and social behaviour but then go on to behave immorally or antisocially anyway, and be unable to explain why; Example: patients with prosopagnosia can describe from memory the features of the face of a loved one & then describe the features of a face in a photograph & yet claim not to recognise the face or do so only on an intellectual level eg "so I suppose that must be my wife".

Psychopaths may fall into this same pattern: be able to intellectually deduce the state of another's mind, emotion and general internal state but not recognise it and so not feel any empathy in the same way one might deduce the experience of a remote historical figure but feel the same remoteness even for the experience of family and friends in the present~ it just doesn't 'click'.
sirdumpalot
not rated yet Mar 13, 2018
Psychopaths have lots of cognitive empathy and no affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is simple reasoning - run your own mind through someone else's experience, given their background history, and present external factors, and see how you/they react. Other people's emotional makeup doesn't matter, Theory of Mind means everyone reacts approximately the same.

The lack of affective empathy helps for acting out what one wants. (I have lots of personal distress cause of AS.. enjoy the reasoning, don't like the suffering)
baudrunner
not rated yet Mar 13, 2018
The question of why the psychopath does harm is based on pride. It is derived from the knowledge of what it is that they cannot do, the things that ordinary people derive satisfaction from, and this can lead to an intense frustration. They often vent this frustration to give them the illusion of power and domination, and acting this out raises their self-esteem. They are even prepared to sacrifice themselves - "..go ahead, pull the trigger, I don't care!" - because they really don't, knowing that they can never measure up to standards determined by the moral compass of the normal population, which outnumber them 1,000 to 1. True psychopaths harbor hatred, but they will not explain it off to inadequacy. They need to feel dominant.
gzurbay
not rated yet Mar 13, 2018
Sociopaths depend on being able to engineer their environment - as the operative method to get what they want. While this depends on ALWAYS trying to maximize their advantage, they will divert benefit to those who support them, a wife, children, a close associate - as insurance to maintain a beneficial environment. Any benefit, consideration, commitment to justice for outsiders is a mere non-starter - as there is no return benefit. The sociopath may be adept at moving through society, - due to focused self-interest and a lack of concern for "others" - who may at any time be used for a convenient target of diversion/self aggrandizement, - as the warrior hero. Perhaps the best example: The TOBACCO company CEO - unashamed at being complicit in the deaths of millions of customers, while claiming their championship of the customer's 'RIGHT' to make their individual decision to smoke - which just so happens to support their multi $MILLION "compensation" - for all that "WORK" ( DEATH )
dark_thoughts
not rated yet Mar 14, 2018
Yale's Arielle Baskin-Sommers appears alarmingly naive and uninformed to me, if she was thinking it was inability to see others' perspectives that was the crucial point of difference between neurotypical and psychopathic individuals.

The crucial difference is a lack of conscience in psychopaths. They can certainly see other people's perspectives and appreciate their interests, and also know their malign actions will cause suffering - but they do not get any pricking of conscience from doing that, and in fact often feel amused and empowered by their ability to be calculatingly cruel.

I have worked or house-shared with people with sociopathy at least three times in my life - enough to get the gist of what they are like.
PeterPassword
not rated yet Mar 19, 2018
It has never perplexed me. Seems clear that psychopaths are perfectly able to understand others, the difference is they don't care, they lack empathy.
I'm converned by the American conflation of the word psychopathy and sociopathy, which is used interchangeably by gzurbay & dark_thoughts above and others, seemingly slipping into using sociopath when the title pof the article clearly states psychopaths.
In the UK we don't suffer this problem. And since this is where American comes from, perhaps it would be helpful to restate the definitions:
Psychopath is a person without empathy or feeling for others who is supremely egotistical, outgoing, charming and persuasive. Most political or business leaders are phychopaths, as are seriel killers. It's all a question of degree, we all need a little of it [we call it ego] in order to think of ourselves and have personal aims.
A sociopath is the very opposite; shy, quiet, non self-promoting, avoids attracting attention, empathetic & sensitive
dudester
not rated yet Mar 20, 2018
@PeterPassword:

You're a bit off according to this article in a British paper:
'The Difference Between A Psychopath And A Sociopath'
https://www.indep...016.html

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